When he was fourteen years old, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch witnessed the death of his older sister Sophie from tuberculosis, at a time when there was no treatment for the disease. The tragic event deeply affected the young Munch, who remained obsessed with it for much of his early adult life, painting and re-painting the moments before Sophie’s death in a canvas known as The Sick Child.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has for a long time been the most widely accepted secular explanation for how living organisms change over time. In the social sciences, however, Darwinism spawned a mire of theories on the role that evolutionary mechanisms play in shaping human society.
More than anything, there is widespread belief that competition filters out the weak and promotes the “survival of fittest,” and that markets select a certain class of talented and deserving people. Reality is more complex than this: many obviously talented and deserving people are not particularly successful in their pursuits, while many people with no apparent talent sometimes reap incredible rewards.
In Ancient Greece, a tyrant (τύραννος) was someone who seized absolute power over a city by force, without due consideration for tradition or law. The word did not necessarily have a pejorative connotation. Not all Greek tyrants were hated men; in fact, some were popular rulers in their time. But the worst of tyrants are remembered for their cruelty. They examplify how unchecked power can easily degenerate into despotic rule.
Tyranny, I will argue, is something that can occur at different levels of society. The abuse of power is a danger that looms in all kinds of hierarchical relationships, not only in government. I have witnessed many situations where powerful managers treated their subordinates in a repulsive manner. Why is this type of small-scale tyranny so widespread? Is there anything one can do to avoid being affected by it? This essay explores how hierarchy inherently generates possibilities for tyrannical behavior to emerge, how thoughtful executives can forge securities against misrule, and what sovereign individuals can do to avoid the evils of hierarchy.
The photo above was taken by Robert Capa, the only civilian photographer to follow the Allied troops landing at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Capa took 106 photos that day. But then something very unfortunate happened. Most of the pictures were destroyed in a processing accident. Only eleven survived. They are known as “The Magnificent Eleven.”
These photos — mostly blurred, surreal shots — convey the intensity and chaos experienced by soldiers on the front line as the invasion unfolded. In hindsight, it turns out that the invasion was a great success, but it certainly didn’t feel that way for the soldier when he first landed. That soldier stepped right into a fog of war, and into a dangerous and uncertain fate.
What does it mean, to be rational? This is the question that Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber ask in their revolutionary book, The Enigma of Reason. This book was a complete revelation to me. It shattered some of my most deeply held beliefs about intelligence, and its implications for our understanding of human nature are profound. I here summarize some of its main ideas, weaving in some of my own thoughts along the way.
It is fascinating to observe how people become obsessed with their reputation. This is especially true in the era of social media. I find this fascinating because I believe that reputation is something that is very hard to control: it takes time to build, but can easily crash. Moreover, I have always thought that people who are excessively concerned about their image easily become false and superficial; and that caring too much about reputation makes you a slave to the opinions of others. So why is it that reputation is such an important concern in our societies? The Italian philosopher Gloria Origgi offers a fresh and extensive understanding of reputation as a psychological and social phenomenon in her book Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters. I here summarize some of the main points made by the author.
Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor is a truly fascinating management book. You can tell it is a good book because it is hard to summarize. Each chapter is filled with insightful ideas and stories from her experience working as a top manager in Silicon Valley companies. Moreover, Scott’s theories are informed by her first-hand experience about what works in practice, unlike much academic prose (such as Barling’s The Science of Leadership, which despite the impressive title is just a literature review of hundreds of disparate and ultimately useless leadership theories invented by scholars.) This article only draws upon the first two chapters of Scott’s book, which address the following question: as a manager, how do you establish a trusting relationship with the people who report to you?
The modern relevance of Stoic ideas is beautifully explained by the American philosopher William B. Irvine in two of his books, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt, and Why they Shouldn’t. I here summarize some of the ideas espoused by the author, with a specific focus on the life advice that the Stoics had for dealing with conflict in human relations.
The Ajax Dilemma is a fantastic interpretation of the Iliad by the classicist philosopher Paul Woodruff, centering on the tensions arising between Ajax, Odysseus, and King Agamemnon. The ethical lessons that can be drawn from this work are truly eye-opening. I here quote, paraphrase, and summarize some of the main themes of the book.
Contemporary society literally surrounds us with a semantic mess when it comes to the way human interactions are to be “managed.” On the one hand, we are bombarded with terms such as collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork, usually on the grounds that they are ideals to be pursued; on the other hand, there is competition, confrontation, and conflict, which are associated with all kinds of unwanted behavior. How do we differentiate all these terms from each other? Do they really allow us to better understand the way we interact? How do we evaluate whether one or the other is in fact good or bad?